Children in the Nazi Ghettos

Although the concept of the family did not disappear during the Holocaust, the traditional family structure was modified to meet new circumstances. Isolated from their jobs and their role as provider for their families, fathers no longer had the same authority. Since many family members worked in the ghettos, including children aged ten and older, the father’s status within the family changed. In addition to the inability to adequately provide for their families, fathers also could not protect their children from Nazi cruelty. Israel Gutman states that “during the Nazi occupation and the existence of the ghetto…the trust and logic of the adult world was undermined. Fears, frustration, and helplessness affected adults more profoundly than it did the adolescents and placed the head of the family in a humiliating position. Fathers could not protect their children.” Deprived of their traditional roles, fathers were ineffective and had no influence over their children who began to disobey and question their authority. These children also had no role model to replace their real fathers. No paternal feeling existed among the Nazis for the Jews in the ghettos. Since the Nazis believed the Jews were evil, children either had a male role model through their father or they had none at all.


The role of Jewish children changed as a consequence of the decline in patriarchal authority. Their fathers were no longer providers, so children smuggled food to their families. They accomplished their mission by slipping through and over the gates to beg on Polish streets, and many saved the food they received to present to their families rather than eat it immediately. Mark Mandel from Warsaw, Poland is one example of a child smuggler. There was a streetcar that ran for two blocks in the Warsaw ghetto which Mandel, age 11, and his sister used to smuggle goods from the Christian side. The entire society was turned upside down as children began to replace their parents as the support of the family. Children had the advantage of size and the ability to play on the sympathies of those on the outside, but their task was dangerous. Diarist Abraham Lewin told of the Warsaw ghetto’s tiny smugglers: “Once again we can observe the scores of Jewish children from the age of ten to 12 or 13 stealing over the Aryan side to buy a few potatoes there…There are also vicious guards who hit the children with murderous blows…More than one child has fallen victim to their bloodlust.” Prior to the conditions of the ghetto these children only worried about school and chores, but in the ghetto they were forced to take on adult responsibilities and even risk their lives for the sake of getting food to their families.


Following the breakdown of the traditional family, teenagers in the ghettos established youth groups. Many members either had no blood relations left alive or had missing relatives, but the groups they formed soon became surrogate families. Youth groups performed the basic functions needed for survival. Members of youth groups shared whatever they had in money or food so that everyone had enough to survive. The groups provided aid to members, but those involved formed familial bonds with their fellow members. Youth movement leader Yitzhak Zuckerman explains: “There was common responsibility, not concern for ourselves…the possibility that one of us would abandon the other and get along somehow—something that sometimes even happened within families—did not exist within our circles.”


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